Missoula mayoral candidates weigh in on housing, homelessness
(Missoula Current) Five candidates vying to finish the last two years of former Mayor John Engen's term gathered for the first time together at the Missoula Public Library on Monday night to answer questions ranging from housing to homelessness.
The event was sponsored by the Missoula County Democrats and most of the questions reflected the party's local priorities including homelessness, LGBTQ+ issues and affordable housing.
But several questions also focused on workforce housing and the relationship between the public and private sector. Candidates in order of seating included Brandi Atanasoff, Andrea Davis, Jordan Hess, Shawn Knopp and Mike Nugent.
The candidates on Missoula's homeless problem
“One of the big things Missoula is calling for is addressing this crisis in the short-term, in the immediacy, while also figuring out our plans in the long-term. One of the things that has troubled me about this conversation is that a lot of sound bites put one face on the unhoused.
“There are so many reasons that people are in the situation where they're unhoused and struggling, and some of those are within our control and some of those are because government has failed people at both the federal level and state level, and that falls down locally in what's basically an unfunded mandate for us to figure out how to solve problems in society that government is failing.
“It's fair and safe to say that people can expect and should reasonably want to have parks and trails available for their intended purposes. But I also believe we need to make sure we treat people with dignity. One of those things is recognizing what's going to happen and plan for it ahead of time. What's going on now we should have been planning for last November, and here we are in our current situation.”
"We need an immediate answer now so we can deal with the long-term issue. We need to treat these people with not just dignity, but to get their self-respect back. I sit and watch these people, and we give and give with food and clothing, but they don't respect it because they don't have to earn it.
“They don't have any self-respect left with a lot of these people. If we were to enable them to earn just a little bit, pick up some trash during the day to earn your meal, it would go a long way to getting their self-worth back. It's the only thing that's going to get them back on the path. I see people give away free tennis shoes and the next thing I know they're hanging on the telephone wires.
“Anybody knows growing up if you worked for something, you have a whole lot more respect for it. You feel more pride for yourself. We need to give them the help they need and housing they need, but they need to earn it too.”
One of the things we do in local government is we figure out how to solve something, we iterate and we get better at it. A few years ago, it was the day before a weekend that was going to turn subzero, we didn't have an emergency winter shelter, we didn't have the respite for people to stay in the cold.
“We got together quickly, haphazardly and figured out how to open the Mountain Line transfer center. We staffed that through a volunteer effort, and we saved lives that weekend. We absolutely, by providing this ad-hoc emergency shelter, saved lives that weekend.
“The next year we figured out we needed to do it better and we opened the Salvation Army emergency shelter. The next year we figured out we needed to do it better and opened the Johnson Street shelter. We've been planning for this for years and have been working on it for years, and we're getting better and better.
“This year, we closed our emergency winter shelter as we always do, and we had a significant uptick in those living without shelter, and we needed to respond very quickly. In May, I declared a state of emergency, and we had a sheltering emergency we needed to respond to with compassion.
"We're working to open the emergency winter shelter on a year-round basis as quickly as possible. We're also working to launch a discussion with the provider community about long-term needs and make sure we have a long-term solution here."
“I concur with much of what has been said. We currently still have many unhoused people camping in our town, and obviously several people are concerned about the health and safety of our residents but also our unhoused residents.
“We need to find a dignified solution for an undignified situation. I do think we have an opportunity to designate a sanctioned camp spot where we can put our resources into garbage collection and temporary bathrooms, offer people water, and bring services to that location.
“We have a better chance of connecting people with existing resources in our community. Right now, we move people from location to location and we're utilizing taxpayer dollars to do that, except we're also disrupting a terrible situation. It's not going to be easy to have a campsite in our community, but this is a two-way door opportunity.”
“A while back we had some guy comment on one of our posts saying we need to bring the militia in to deal with our homeless. I went out into all the homeless situations in Missoula and started asking questions.
“What I heard from the mass population from everyone I asked questions to was that they have everything taken care of and they prefer to panhandle for their soda and their relief things that they need. I worked with people who need to stand up to adverse events a lot.
“Being homeless is an adverse event. You don't have shelter, you have to find your food and you're reliant on people to survive. The longer you're in that state, the harder it is to repeat behaviors that you're doing when you're not in survival mode.
“To fix this problem, we need to have structure. You need to put your feet in front of each other one after another to get to your destination. If you're not moving your feet forward and you're not doing the behaviors you need to do so to survive, you're still going to be laying there, but you're going to be making it normalized.”
The candidates on affordable housing in Missoula
“There's a lot going on on the housing front. We need to reform our land-use code, and we're working on that. There's the vision. What do we want our community to look like? What attributes do we want our community to have as we grow?
"And there's the regulatory side. How do we connect the vision to the zoning to the subdivision regulations and connect those dots?
“And there's the process piece. If you go in to get a building permit, how is that process? Is it clunky? Is it time consuming? Can we find efficiencies? That's a three-tier process that's underway. It's a once-in-a-generation opportunity and it's an exciting process.
“The next piece is direct participation in our housing market. We're doing that in investments in the Scott Street housing development, in redevelopment of the Sleepy Inn site. That's taking city-owned land and land-banking it and offering it for development of housing Missoulians can afford.
“The last piece is an incentive structure. How do we incentivize private developers to develop housing Missoulians can afford? Can we offer incentives to create conditions where that's beneficial for developers? It's an all of the above strategy.”
“Every candidate up here, we share a very similar platform. We all know what Missoula needs. That's what helps me stand apart as a candidate. I am the only expert up here with 15 years as an executive director of a housing organization delivering what you just asked.
“Our home-buyer education program is geared toward forks earning 80% (of the AMI) and above, because we're seeking out options we don't currently have. The city has the opportunity to create the foundation where the private market can react and build homes that are affordable. We do that through an updated zoning code and a more streamlined development process.
“But in addition, we have our city housing policy, where we have an Affordable Housing Trust Fund we've funded here locally, and one of the things we really need to go after as a city is to make sure that we're creating statewide policy to create more capital in financing to build homes that are affordable for people earning 80% and above.
“We need to continue to advocate at the federal level for those resources because, to date, that has been everything we've depended upon in our community.”
“Everyone up here knows the problem. I'm working on a deal for a 14-acre plot to do title-deeded condos so we can get first-time homebuyers into something they can build a little equity in. Someone can move in, build a little equity and move up the ladder.
“No one's dream is to live on housing assistance. We've got to find ways for people to find homes they can get into. I think that's the only way to give people a leg up in this town, to help them get their first home deeded.”
“I'm going to say random things. We need to prepare people. If our town understands that we're moving in a direction, we need to shift and we need to educate, and we need to make classes where we say this is how you budget to stay within this town's price.
“Anyone making less than $96,000 annually is going to need some kind of policy or government subsidy to pay for housing in Missoula. If that's true, then the responsible and wise thing to do right now is to help our kids correctly instead of making up stories that don't exist.
"It would change the angle of how we educate people about how to live, how to survive, what it costs and how to spend your money. At the end of the day, no one wants to see people they love unhoused in this town.”
“I've put a lot of thought into this. I'm the only candidate up here who has seen housing from multiple sides. I've seen it from the private sector. I've seen it from the affordable housing sector as a board member of the Missoula Housing Authority. I've seen it from the regulatory side on City Council.
“I can tell you with certainty there is no one answer for housing. We have to be working on solutions across the board. The 80% to 120% AMI is important, but so is less than 80% and so is more than 120%, because the sad truth about Missoula right now is people making 120% of the AMI can't afford to live here.
“We have a serious housing cost problem. We ought to talk about our serious housing problems, but we're afraid of the tough conversations to fix them. We're afraid of giving up a little bit of control to help the people who want to help us solve our problems. It takes far too long to get projects approved. It takes far too long to get a building permit.”